This is Tariq Hasan’s second book. His first one, The Aligarh Movement and the Making of Indian Muslim Mind was well received in 2005. An Aligarh-based journalist with an engineering degree, Hasan has done a balanced analysis of the role of clerics and their concept of jihad during India’s struggle for independence. He identifies leading ulema from 1800 to 1947 and weaves their stories into India’s search for an identity in those tumultuous decades.
The ulema, with their well-known resistance to forces of modernity do not come out smelling of roses in what he calls ‘the forgotten pages of history’. So what made him take up such a sensitive topic? In his own words, “These accounts are relevant today not just for India, but also for the West because they mirror the larger story of imperialism and its victims.” Surely, the reader will appreciate that the worldview and motivations of people living under a foreign regime will have an element of desperation that leaves little room for expansive philosophies.
The contradictory pulls and pushes in Hasan’s family help in painting a complex tapestry of those times. His paternal grandfather Ali Hasan Khan was a zamindar given the title of Khan Bahadur by the British but his maternal grandfather AbduAbdul Majeed Khwaja was a staunch Gandhian. His discomfiture over the riots in Jamshedpur, Jabalpur and Aligarh in the early 1960s estranged him from Nehru. Gandhi, however, paid him the rare tribute of equating him with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (Frontier Gandhi), saying just before partition that if the country could learn from the two, the India of their dreams would become a reality.
Perhaps the most romanticised account we are offered is of Saiyid Ahmad Barelvi, considered by Western historians as the spiritual founder of 21st century mujahideen in Afghanistan. He first opposed the Christian missionaries of highlighting the Muslim religious leaders whose roles were deliberately brushed aside, either by Western historians or by the Nehruvian brigade. The 1857 Mutiny has been sneered at by the Left because of its regressive goal of restoring the regime of Bahadurshah Zafar, the last of the Mughals. Nevertheless, this was a time when Hindus and Muslims put their lives at risk to unite against the Christian enemy. “It is only lately,” writes Hasan, “that new-age historians, such as William Dalrymple, have gone deeper to probe the finer nuances of the different Muslim religious and social groups which played the key role in this insurgency.”
For young readers blissfully ignorant of the communal disharmony that marred the 20th century, the legendary figures who stalk the pages of this book make for a fascinating read. Take the drama surrounding what the British called the Silk Conspiracy Case and was known locally as the Reshmi Rumal Tehreek. It was hatched by the US-based Ghadar Party and at one point a top-secret message was written on silk handkerchiefs which fell into the wrong hands. We are told that a major reason the conspiracy failed (leading to the arrest of 59 persons) is because the Sherrif of Mecca rebelled against the Ottoman Empire at the instigation of British agents like TE Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Such is the stuff of legends with which this book is peppered. Most of us are products of our times — the ulema were no exception to this rule. The country must be grateful that they passed on the baton of rebellion to people like Gandhi, but it was they who ran those difficult first miles.